Moon’s special envoy facing tough task of persuading N.K. to hold talks with U.S.

March 2, 2018

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, March 2 (Yonhap) — A special envoy that President Moon Jae-in is planning to send to North Korea should focus on figuring out ways to narrow the seemingly unbridgeable gap between Washington and Pyongyang on nuclear issues and persuade the reclusive country to step out for talks to discuss its nuclear and missile programs, experts said Friday.

They cautioned against expecting too much from the envisioned visit and instead called for the government to take a more realistic short-term approach to coax it out of its long isolation and toward negotiation, rather than something that the North could find hard to swallow.

On Thursday night, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said that Moon told U.S. President Donald Trump over the phone that he will “soon” send a special envoy to North Korea.

Who will be sent to the North has not been disclosed. National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon and Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon are among those being mentioned as possible candidates.

The dispatch would come after North Korea sent a delegation in February, in time for the opening of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and conveyed its leader Kim Jong-un’s invitation of Moon to Pyongyang. The delegation included Kim’s sister, Yo-jong, who served as his special envoy.

Moon has yet to formally accept the invitation but asked the North to make active efforts to create an environment for the summit to take place. He has underlined the importance of resumption of talks between Washington and Pyongyang on the latter’s nuclear program, which he believes should go hand in hand with efforts to improve inter-Korean relations.

“They sent their special envoy earlier so we need to send our own to confirm what North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has in mind,” said Kim Yeon-chul, a professor at Inje University. “At a time when there are differences in stances between the U.S. and North Korea, it is important to figure out the North’s exact intentions.”

“All might boil down to whether we will be able to create the conditions to get the U.S. and North Korea to sit down for talks. It is important to find any clue as to how to do it,” he added.

Despite a growing sense of rapprochement between the two Koreas, there seems to be a sea of difference between the U.S. and North Korea on preconditions for them to sit down together for any kind of talks. The U.S. has said that any talks with the North should result in its denuclearization, while the North has claimed it is a nonstarter.

Though the North recently said that its leader is willing to talk with the U.S., which raised speculation that the two might be one step closer to meeting together, the U.S. still appears not to budge.

Marc Knapper, acting U.S. ambassador to South Korea, told reporters on Wednesday that the U.S. doesn’t want to talk with the North if it tries to buy time for further development of its nuclear and missile programs, as it has done many times before.

“We have seen enough times when the North used dialogue with us and South Korea and others to continue to buy time to pursue nuclear and missile developments,” he said. “North Korea should show some willingness to talk about denuclearization if any talks between the U.S. and North Korea can be possible.”

After President Moon’s plan to send a special envoy to the North was announced, the White House also reaffirmed that denuclearization is a key part of any dialogue with Pyongyang.

“President Trump and President Moon noted their firm position that any dialogue with North Korea must be conducted with the explicit and unwavering goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” it said in a readout.

Experts said what the envoy will have to do is to drive home the point that it should agree to the basic principle of its denuclearization, while at the same time assuring that Seoul will work hard to address Pyongyang’s long-claimed security concerns.

“While explaining that (we) have no intention to threaten its regime, we should persuade the North to come out for exploratory talks without any preconditions, making it a point that no talks can be possible as long as it seeks to be recognized as a nuclear-armed country,” said Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

Cautioning against expecting too much from the planned dispatch of a special envoy such as any kind of “big deal” or “breakthrough,” experts said that it is important to take a “short-term” approach so as to effectively nudge Pyongyang out for talks.

They cited a “freeze” or “moratorium” on the North’s missile and nuclear programs as a possible starting point.

“Given that it is critical to have the U.S. and North Korea resume dialogue, it is necessary to persuade the North at least to declare a moratorium on its nuclear and missile programs,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of Handong Global University. “After all, there is no reason for the North to conduct more nuclear and missile tests after saying that it has completed its nuclear armament.”

Shin, of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, echoed the view.

“It would be hard for the North to come out (for talks) if it is asked to give up (its nuclear program). But (the proposal for talks) could be accepted if the demand is on a long-term basis,” he said. “I think it would be possible for the U.S. as well to have explorative talks (with the North) if denuclearization is included in long-term objectives.”